Bruce Weindruch, CEO of History Factory and author of the book Start with the Future and Work Back: A Heritage Management Manifesto, recently sat down with Arthur Einstein, the reknowned ad executive who was an integral part of the U.S. advertising landscape for more than 30 years at agencies such as Lord Geller Federico Einstein. Einstein’s work as a writer, creative director and eventually agency president during the 1970s and ’80s included outstanding creative work on accounts such as IBM, Tiffany & Co., The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Stock Exchange.
BW: Talk to me about the whole notion of authenticity in advertising.
AE: Something authentic is genuine, real, and definitely not fake. I think all advertisers want to be authentic, but often they get so involved with making ‘copy points’ and tracking accountability, that authenticity gets lost in the shuffle. Persuasion has always been what selling is about, and it’s hard to persuade people when they smell fakery. P.T. Barnum said there’s a fool born every minute. But today even fools have access to perfect information so that a fool isn’t born every minute anymore – maybe just every half hour or so. They maybe born fools, but they start using computers in kindergarten and grow up with access to a world of information.
So I don’t think Barnum rules any more.
BW: Wasn’t testimonial an attempt at trying to be authentic? Because weren’t early ads really dependent on testimonials?
AE: Yes, testimonials were effective and they still are. I remember when our agency worked for IBM, they had a long tradition of what they called reference sell, which was building advertising around testimony of a satisfied user. But even though a testimonial comes from a third party outside the company, people know that they’re reading an advertisement that has been created in the company’s own self-interest. And I think they understand that book reviews and product reviews on line are salted with testimony that has been written by hired hands. Testimony does add believability to an ad or a press release, but it better be authentic. References support authenticity and we rely on them all the time – as when we ask a friend if they know a good dentist or handy man. In product reviews on Amazon, or the supposedly disinterested stock tips like The Motley Fool, or in forums about hobbies you’re looking at sellers trying to achieve authenticity. They don’t call their posts testimonials – it’s a 20th century word that isn’t used anymore – but that’s what they are – testimonials from third parties, or from themselves. Social media is new, but reference sell has not only survived but prospered.
BW: So what is the role of transparency to get authenticity?
AE: Well, I think that transparency promotes trust. And trust is one of the keys to authenticity when you’re selling things. If you go back to the 19th century when products began to be manufactured in quantity and sold in retail stores, trust, and authenticity lubricated the distribution system. Your neighborhood grocer, or pharmacist or whoever … his business was founded on personal relationships and trust and your trust in him transferred to what was on his shelves. Mass distribution channels don’t earn trust in the same way. They’re impersonal. The things they sell are mostly made in China, and mostly satisfy consumers. So the channel of distribution, whether it’s Walmart, or Wegmans, or Costco, is the party a consumer is forced to trust. It is increasingly the brand that makes the difference. I know it’s hard to find a sales person to help you in many of these stores, and in that sense they’ve become less personal. But today they bear more of the responsibility for truthfulness and trust than they once did. And because products aren’t perfect, service and support are more important part of the transaction.
BW: But hasn’t the customer’s behavior developed a new type of devotion to authenticity?
AE: I think you’re right about that. It used to be enough to claim that you or your product could be trusted. But that’s no long enough. Today trust depends behavior. I swear by Canon products. They make excellent cameras and printers. But they’re far from a monopoly. However, I’ve learned that when I have a problem Canon solves it better and faster than anyone else I know. They don’t have a monopoly on product – but for me, and many others, they have monopolized (and monetized) service and support. Online retailers like Amazon gain consumer trust through their behavior, too, by guaranteeing your purchase. What was implicit at your corner store has become explicit online. Returns are easy and even though you don’t have a local retailer to trust, you don’t have to worry because if someone sells you something that doesn’t work, your online retailer will guarantee you won’t get short-changed. Trust is moving online.
BW: One last question. What’s the role of customer-centricity in authenticity?
AE: I’m a little skeptical about the relationship of businesses to their customers. I mean, what was Volkswagen thinking of when that diesel disaster surfaced? And they’re certainly not alone. The VW incident is a good example of how customer focus is an important piece of authenticity for a large organization. But so many big companies who swear their customers are the first thing they think of before breakfast, are really focused on quarterly results and on getting product off the loading dock and into distribution. Years ago companies sold products to retailers who got it to you at the local level, and through a retailer who had earned your trust. That’s not how mass distribution works any more. The role of local merchant you trusted has diminished. Now you have to be able to trust the big box store, or the giant chain. But when you go into Home Depot, the guy who ran the hardware store who sold you the door hardware and told you how to install it isn’t there. And the person who’s in charge of that store is a stranger, too. This new distribution ecology isn’t going to change. It’s a barrier to customer satisfaction. But in a way that doesn’t discourage me. Because as mass distribution grows, it throws off niche distribution – the store or site where I can still get personal service and the expertise of a specialist I can trust.
Any more questions?